Bob Holt is a sports reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he sits on the board of directors for the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. He has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year four times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
Musselman: Guards need to improve defensively
Arkansas guard Khalif Battle (0) talks with coach Eric Musselman during an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guards El Ellis, Davonte “Devo” Davis, Khalif Battle and Tramon Mark combined to score 53 points against Old Dominion on Monday night.
It was a pretty solid offensive showing led by 17 points from Ellis and 16 from Davis.
“Yeah, really good offensively,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “But our guards have to defend much, much better than we did.”
What concerned Musselman after the No. 14 Razorbacks held on to win 86-77 at Walton Arena was that four Old Dominion guards — Chaunce Jenkins, Devin Ceaser, RJ Blakney and Tyrone Williams — combined for 61 points.
Jenkins, a 6-4 junior who was averaging 18 points per game, scored 21.
Ceaser, a 6-0 sophomore who scored a combined six points in 17 minutes in the first two games, had 18 points in 15 minutes.
“Credit to Ceaser, but he wasn’t really on our scouting report,” said Musselman, whose staff puts together extensive reports on opponents. “Look at what he’s done coming into the game, and he torched us in our backcourt.”
Davis, a fourth-year senior, made the SEC All-Defensive Team last season and was assigned to guard Jenkins, who missed his first six shots.
Jenkins shot 2 of 9 in the first half and scored six points. He shot 6 of 10 in the second half.
“Devo was a 10 out of 10 the first half guarding their star player,” Musselman said. “Couldn’t have guarded him any better. It was picture perfect.”
In the second half, Musselman said Davis had defensive busts on two dribble-drive handoffs to Jenkins that resulted in him hitting open three-pointers.
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“So why?” Musselman said of Davis giving Jenkins too much room. “I don’t know.
“Then our transition defense matching up to people was abysmal.”
Old Dominion missed its first seven three-point attempts before Ceaser hit one with 5:04 left in the first half.
Blakney hit a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer to pull the Monarchs with 37-31. They hit 3 of 4 three-pointers to close the half.
Old Dominion hit 8 of 13 three-pointers in the second half, when it twice closed within three points.
Jenkins, Ceaser, Blakney and Williams combined to hit 24 of 45 shots, including 9 of 15 three-pointers. The Monarchs shot 45.8% on three-pointers (11 of 24), which was more than the Razorbacks allowed in any of their 36 games last season.
Vanderbilt’s 10-of-18 shooting last season was the most three pointers by an Arkansas opponent.
“Guarding the three, there’s no grade it was so bad,” Musselman said.
In the Razorbacks’ two exhibition games and two regular-season games, they held opponents to 22.8% shooting (18 of 79) on three-pointers.
Texas-Tyler was 1 of 20 on three-pointers and No. 3 Purdue was 8 of 27 in the exhibitions, then Alcorn State was 3 of 9 and Gardner-Webb 6 of 23.
Old Dominion was 8 of 26 on three-pointers in its first two games against Virginia Wesleyan and Ball State.
So what got into the Monarchs against the Razorbacks from three-point range?
“We’ve been emphasizing looking for more threes,” Old Dominion Coach Jeff Jones said. “We felt like if we attacked their defense because of the way they play that we could play inside-out.
“We don’t have any postgame and we thought if we drive the ball and kick it out we might have opportunities to shoot more threes. That definitely was the case.
“I also think it was a little bit of you take it in there at your own risk. They have a lot of shot blockers.”
Arkansas 6-10 sophomore Trevon Brazile blocked the Monarchs’ first two shots.
“It’s almost like with their size we were forced to kick it out, which is something we’d like to do more of,” Jones said.
Three-point defense has been an emphasis for Musselman’s teams at Nevada and Arkansas.
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Musselman’s first season at Arkansas in 2019-20, the Razorbacks led the nation in three-point defense at 27.2%. None of his Arkansas teams have allowed opponents to shoot higher than 33.7% for the season on three-pointers. Last season opponents shot 31.1%.
“Same drills, same everything,” Musselman said. “Doing the same drills we were doing when we were No. 1 in the country defending the three.
“So we’ve got some new guys that have to do a better job.”
Battle, Ellis and Mark are all transfers in their first season at Arkansas.
“They were dropping threes all night,” Ellis said on the Razorback Sports Network postgame radio show. “We’ve got to do better on that and on ball screen coverage. We have to do better on that.”
Along with the three-pointers, Old Dominion scored 32 points in the paint.
“You’ve got to keep the ball in front of you,” Musselman said. “You can’t get hit on screens. If you get caught on a screen, you’ve got to do a better job rearview mirror contesting.
“You’ve got to keep your man out of the lane. You can’t give up straight-line dribble drives.
“If you give up straight-line dribble drives and you give up layups, you can’t always expect our bigs to be there to help because we’re not great at the rim with verticality right now.”
The combination of the Monarchs scoring at the rim and on the perimeter frustrated Musselman.
“We didn’t guard the three or the dribble-drive,” he said. “It’s one thing if you’re like, ‘Hey, we shut them down from three, and we gave up some dribble drives.’ They did whatever they wanted.”
Musselman said he’s hopeful the Razorbacks, who play North Carolina-Greensboro on Friday night at Walton Arena, can improve defensively.
“I think we’ll get better,” he said. “We’re going to keep coaching, keep pointing it out, keep talking about it, keep drilling it.”
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